When he was writing The Innocent, Ian McEwan was offered the opportunity to watch a man having his arm sawn off. By a surgeon, I hasten to add. Not randomly, in someone's back garden. It was for research purposes - surprisingly enough - but he was quick to turn down the invitation. He claimed that once he set foot in the operating theatre he would start seeing things as a journalist, and he preferred to describe what took place in his imagination, rather than what happened in front of him.
Could this be right? I thought. On the recent BBC2 programme Murder Most Famous the contestants were set tasks and challenges every day - car chases and police interrogations and the like - in order to give their writing greater authenticity. Both they and their mentor, Minette Walters, agreed that it worked.
On that principle, if I were to have experienced everything I've written about over the past few years, I would have ...
- leapt off a tall building
- been re-born
- lived in New York
- had an affair with a pastry chef
- hidden a cat
- given away a baby
- had my nose pierced
- taken up birdwatching
- killed a cheating boyfriend
Needless to say, I've done none of the above. I may be a better writer if I had (I'd be in prison, actually but we won't go into that) but I don't think I need to sway across the desert on a camel, or kick-box a kangaroo, to imagine what those experiences might feel like. That's the beauty of writing fiction, as opposed to acting it and having to bulk up to accurately portray a boxer, or pile on four ounces to play Bridget Jones (Renee Zellwegger shot up to a gargantuan SIZE 10!!!!!! Shocking, or what??) Conveying the emotion surrounding the experience is surely what it's all about?
Obviously, research is vital for facts, procedures, dates, terminology etc - and I love that, because it allows me to fart around on the computer for weeks - but I can see where Ian McEwan was coming from.
If you're writing articles or features experience is essential, but in the world of fiction, imagination is King (or Queen, if you prefer).